Housekeeping Thoughts, Part II

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Here’s a follow up to my last post about housekeeping.

The other part of Cheryl Mendelson’s book I’ve been thinking about is where she talks about setting up routines and systems for maintaining a household. This is something I’ve managed to do over the past few years, and I have to say that it’s made a huge difference.

Because I do the same things on a regular basis, I don’t have to think about them, and even when my schedule is disrupted, I’m usually able to get back to them fairly quickly. So my house still gets messy and things end up all over the place, but it’s not stressful because I know I’ll be able to get to it when I’m through whatever it is that’s taking priority. And once I get back to it, it doesn’t take that much energy to put it all back together.

My routine is very general; it’s not rigid. Basically I’ve figured out what I care about and as long as that’s all good, I don’t worry about anything else. And because those things are all taken care of on a regular basis, when I have time to actually “clean,” I can do more extensive things that make an even bigger difference — like for instance washing windows, which (if you do the outsides too), makes you feel like you bought a new house.

I used to get so overwhelmed that I would let everything go to hell, and just getting the basics done took so much energy that the basics were all I could manage. Now the basics get done without much work, and even when my life is a complete disaster, I have clean sheets on the bed and my kitchen looks good at least once a week.

This is the part of Home Comforts that helped inspire me to do that.

An increasing number of households do housework without any system, schedule, or routine, more or less reacting to each situation as it arises. This makes things harder, not easier. With systematic housekeeping, most of the time you live comfortably: supplies are not exhausted; dirt and laundry to not overaccumulate; plans and resources for at-home occupations and entertainments are in place. In nonsystematic housekeeping, chores are tended to only when the resources of one of the household’s systems are exhausted: when there are no clean clothes or linens and there is school in the morning and stale beds tonight; when it is the dinner hour and the cabinet is bare; when dirt and disorder are beyond tolerating. When you keep house like this, domestic frustrations and discomfort begin to be felt long before you reach the point where you decide to do something about them. But when this point is reached, often the troubles cannot immediately be remedied because, without rational schedules, nothing ensures that time or resources will then be available to tend to the house. Moreover, the amount of work is more than it would have been had there been daily tending to chores; everything has become worse than it would have been. And worst of all, the only time you get to experience anything like a well-kept house is immediately after the emergency response measures are taken. The rest of the time — most of the time — you live badly.

A housekeeping routine not only prevents your home from growing seedy and sour between cleanings but also helps assure that you are willing to do the work, for, as experienced people all know, housework motivation can be a psychologically delicate matter. Cleaning, laundry, and other chores are far harder after you have let them go for two weeks; the energy you must summon to tackle them becomes greater the longer you have procrastinated. Not doing some housework leads to not doing even more housework.

If you have no system, you have to reinvent your housekeeping or debate what to do first every time you do it, and the required mental effort is a major obstacle, especially when you are tired. But a tired working person is often able to do things that are routine and habitual. No thinking is required; minimal inertia must be overcome. A chore that fits into a reassuring overall plan of housekeeping feels effective and worthwhile. But if you feel you are just tackling the worst problem in a home that is starting to go to pieces, it may hardly seem worth the effort.

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